Playing with Fire

David Edgar
RNT Olivier
(2005)

If Sir David Hare had written a fourth play as a sequel to his Absence of War trilogy, it might well have been Playing with Fire. Apart from a weak enquiry scene after the interval, this State of the Nation indictment of New Labour from the perspective of local council politics would make a worthy Third Millennium successor to that great series.

Wyverdale is a throwback to the great days when so many Yorkshire urban councils were known as Socialist Republics. It is run by a bunch of ageing men led by David Troughton's well-meaning but ineffectual George. He recognises the problems of running "Cool Britannia's backside" but his political beliefs prevent him from taking the necessary action.

Their performance by all of the measures that matter to the office of Deputy Prime Minister is appalling. As a consequence, they are "invited" to introduce a trouble-shooter in the surprising guise of Emma Fielding's tiny Alex Clifton. She is sent in to achieve a goal likened, in metaphors that hardly flatter the Government that she represents, to the Soviet conquerors of Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The initial meetings between the advocate of New Labour philosophy and the hard-nosed councillors are both very funny and utterly believable. Soon, projects are implemented to raise finances, create social harmony and eradicate drugs and prostitution.

There are difficulties as is inevitable when politics intrude into real life and class and religious divisions come to the fore. Hard Left Politicians like Jack Ross and Arthur Barraclough (Ewan Stewart and Trevor Cooper) will never change and so others must be promoted.

This is where the problems start. Paul Battacharjee's eminently reasonable Riaz seems a perfect peacemaker but his role is clouded when Alex falls for him in an unlikely piece of plotting.

Following Alex' bumbling attempts to change the council's make-up, Frank Wilkins, a former headmaster played by Oliver Ford Davies, loses his "cabinet" post to Riaz. This Ken Livingstone figure then launches a tirade in support of a kind of posh racism and after causing race riots, takes on the politically sensitive role of elected mayor of a city at war. Then Edgar runs out of ideas.

Michael Attenborough's direction of this last play in the 2005 Travelex £10 season is, like the play, at its best in the highly-charged first half. He is well supported by designer Lez Brotherston whose low-budget town centre set, complete with symbolic war memorial is perfect.

Emma Fielding doubles as narrator and protagonist in the part of the naive Alex and holds the play together impressively. Edgar's has a tendency towards stereotyping and struggles as he strives to tie up loose ends and also achieve a convincing conclusion. His real success though, is to get beneath the skin of local and national politics in the world of New Labour and he does so with great skill and humour.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher